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Bill Would Permit Bigger Political Roles For US Civil Servants

LET'S say you're a federal employee, and you support Fred Roe, a candidate for Congress.

Under current law, you may contribute as much as $1,000 to Mr. Roe's campaign, and you may wear a button around the office touting him, and you may plaster your house, lawn, and car with posters for him.

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But, if you're short on cash, you may not donate your time by stuffing envelopes for him. And though you may attend a rally for Roe, you may not carry a sign at the rally on his behalf.

These are the kind of inconsistencies that Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio wants to correct as lead sponsor of a bill under debate in the Senate this week that would revise the Hatch Act, a 54-year-old law restricting the political actions of the nation's 3 million civil servants.

"The regulations are complicated. We agree they could be clarified," says Meredith McGehee, senior lobbyist for the advocacy group Common Cause. "But [the bill] gets rid of the guts of the Act." She cites provisions of the bill that would do the following: permit federal employees to hold office in a political party, allow them to raise campaign contributions from colleagues, and allow them to run political-action committees.

Ms. McGehee argues that, even with mechanisms to help prevent overt political coercion of employees by colleagues who have power over their career progress, the bill does not protect against "implicit coercion."

SENATOR Glenn sees it as a question of free speech - as long as the employee is engaging in after-hours political activity and not as a representative of the government.

"Federal employees should not be treated like second-class citizens and be forced to forfeit their constitutional rights when they opt for careers in public service," Glenn said on the Senate floor last Tuesday. Under his bill, he said, the wearing of political buttons would no longer be allowed on the job.

Congress has been trying to revise the Hatch Act for years, but has been thwarted by presidents concerned that a politicized civil service could strike back at the executive branch. Some Republicans argue that the Democratic-controlled Congress is playing politics by allowing government bureaucrats, who Republicans say tend to be on the liberal side, to be more political.

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The Clinton administration has said it will support whatever the House and Senate agree upon.

Sen. William Roth, the bill's leading opponent, sees it as a reversal of the trend toward cleaning up government's image.

"Are we really prepared to allow federal employees to become campaign managers and party leaders?" Senator Roth asked. "If so, we must be prepared to deal with the abuse which is sure to follow, along with the public's belief that politics has once again crept into the nonpartisan administration of government."

Glenn argues that circumstances have changed since 1939, when the Hatch Act was passed. Back then, federal jobs were often awarded on the basis of political patronage, not merit. Now, he says, we have a "merit-based civil service which ensures that promotions in the vast majority of federal jobs go to those with the best qualifications, not the best political connections."

The bill would establish an office of special counsel and a "merit-systems protection board" that would handle appeals from employees who felt they had been treated unfairly. Glenn cites other existing laws designed to protect employees from political coercion.

The House passed similar legislation in March by a large margin, but that legislation represents a greater deviation from the Hatch Act than the current Senate version. The House would allow federal employees to run for partisan local office, and would allow them to solicit contributions from the public.

Glenn stresses that the Senate bill is not the same as the House version - a signal that the House-Senate conference to arrive at a common bill may not be easy.

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